Pulling Back the Curtain

Who's behind a right-wing group with racist views that's ensnared pols from both parties?

By Matt Bai
Newsweek, February 1, 1999

No one would ever accuse Mike Moore of being a white supremacist. Mississippi's attorney general recently reopened—and won—a 33-year-old murder case against Sam Bowers, a former Klansman who will now spend the rest of his life in prison. "We're trying to right the wrongs of the past in Mississippi," says Moore, a Democratic star. So how could he have ended up at a political rally sponsored by the Council of Conservative Citizens—a self-described "pro-white" group that also hosted Republicans Trent Lott and Bob Barr? "I don't know anything about [the CCC]," a confused Moore told NEWSWEEK. "I'm on the other side." But Moore acknowledges that he probably did attend the candidates' rally. So do dozens of candidates in races from county judge to the governor.

How did the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose members oppose intermarriage and "the civil-rights culture," manage to get close to so many mainstream politicians? In part, at least, because the council played down its more extremist views in order to appear legitimate. The candidates' rallies didn't feature any hateful speeches by council members. Barr says he received a packet of information on the group that happened to leave out the part about wanting to separate the races. He and Lott both recently acknowledged that they had spoken to the organization but insisted they had no idea what it stood for, even though anyone could have figured that out by reading its literature or scanning its Web site. Then it surfaced that the Republican national committeeman from South Carolina, Buddy Witherspoon, was a member. (The party's national chairman, Jim Nicholson, promptly asked him to drop his affiliation, but Witherspoon refused.) As it turns out, the council stretches well across party lines; more than 30 members of the Mississippi legislature, Republicans and Democrats, were said to be members. The CCC is a case study in hate masquerading as politics—and a sign that the worst elements of the Old South are still very much alive in the New.

The council, which was founded in the mid-1980s by veterans of the notorious white Citizens Councils, which opposed integration, is run out of the suburban St. Louis home of Gordon Lee Baum. A 58-year-old personal-injury lawyer, Baum plays down the council's more extreme writings. "We're not out here in a cornfield burning crosses at midnight," he says of his 15,000 members. But on its Web site, the group assails the "twisted dream" of Martin Luther King Jr. and accuses civil-rights activists of "hate-mongering." One of the group's 29 directors has written that whites are "superior" to blacks in several areas, including "intelligence," "law-abidingness" and "resistance to disease."

How much did folks like Barr and Lott really know about the group? Barr insists he was misinformed. "I find your views on racial issues repugnant," he wrote the council. Lott has a longer history with the group. His favorite uncle, 89-year-old Arnie Watson, is a member. ("The Bible says every race should stay within the bounds of its habitat," he said in an interview.) Watson says he doesn't remember ever discussing the group's agenda with the majority leader, but he claims Lott was an honorary member when he was in the House. Lott has said he didn't accept any kind of membership. What lured politicians of both parties is that the council claimed to embrace some core issues—from lower taxes to saving the Confederate flag—that are popular throughout the South. They probably should have known better. They certainly do now.